The Chairs, Almeida Theatre, stage review: ‘An intellectual pickling’

Marcello Magni and Kathryn Hunter in The Chairs. Photograph: Helen Murray

What can be said of Eugene Ionesco’s sublime surrealist play The Chairs? A little like dropping acid, the experience proves hard to describe, but as it is my job to do so, I’ll try.

When he burst onto the pre-war gloom of the British stage scene, Ionesco joined the illustrious ranks of Europe’s experimental theatre-makers. Bertolt Brecht, Antonin Artaud, and Samuel Beckett sit on this council of challenging yet outstanding playwrights. The four black crows of the theatre world, staring down at their perplexed and bruised audience members. Beckett and Ionesco built on the groundwork of Artaud and Brecht.

Visually, this incarnation recalls polish theatre director Tadeusz Kantor, but with a decanter of Beckett’s Waiting for Godot poured into the mix.

Kathryn Hunter and Marcello Magni sit together, white faces and pink, wide eyes, Charlie Chaplin-esque black and white costumes, and Buster Keaton-style neckerchiefs.

Throughout, the visuals are very Marx brothers, with a heavy dose of slapstick. The set design of Cécile Trémolières and Naomi Kuyck Cohen is all large dusty white theatre curtains and a small spinning wooden centre, a simple home for the nonsensical.

Together the Old Man (Magni) and Old Woman (Hunter) run rings around one another, reminiscing about their unfulfilled life in a script that jumps from ludicrous and realistic. Hunter even admits “it is a very odd script”.

There are hints that the characters may be all that is left in a post-acopalyptic world, and what a remnant. Things really get going when they start inviting guests into the house to hear the Old Man’s great message, with Hunter bringing on an endless number of chairs. But does anyone ever materialize? Well, that would be telling.

The revival of the play in the late 90s by Théâtre de Complicité and the Royal Court Theatre makes a nice link to the current reawakening. With the help of Magni, founding member of Complicité, and Toby Sedgwicks, the piece keeps its experimental feel.

Starting with an “overheard” conversation between the cast, Magni wanting to fake Covid to avoid going on stage, it’s a clever way to kick things off for such a self-aware play.

Hunter is a born clown, with a strange smokiness to her voice, a nightmarish vision of old age and suppressed sexuality. Her long thin arms flail wildly around her head, as her infantile smirk charms and challenges the audience.

Magni is also an accomplished physical performer, and this makes up for his stumbling over the lines and missing cues. Getting caught on his handkerchief or his detailed ability to mime justifies his casting.

Sedgwick (the speaker/stagehand) is tasked with a very challenging monologue as a conclusion, dealing well with the monotony needed for the joke to land.

The high points are the physical gags, the confusion of miming some objects and not others, teacups appearing mid-gesture, mops bashing into heads – a lovely layer of silliness. Hunter’s peacocking for laughs and even the limited audience participation produces explosions of laughter.

Omar Elerian’s translation and direction highlights the play’s absurdity, while keeping the action manically careering along.

Somewhat disappointingly, this pace isn’t sustained, and the final build-up falls a little flat. Although the imagination needed to believe you are in a crowded room instead of an empty theatre is a tall task for any artist.

Overall, the piece confused me, tickled me, angered me, and bewildered me, and I think that’s precisely what Ionesco would have wanted.

A razzle-dazzle of the mind, an intellectual pickling, a befuddling of the senses. Like tumbling down Alice’s rabbit hole, it is hard to tell if the people on stage are mad, or if it is you. Despite some moments of lull, the effect is delightful and disquieting in equal measure.

The Chairs runs until 5 March at Almeida Theatre, Almeida Street, Islington, N1 1TA.